As if boxing was not impoverished enough, Eddie Futch died this week at the age of 90. He was a small, fine-boned, almost bird-like man but when he took the final bell at his home in Las Vegas he left a huge hole in a game he so often despaired of but never ceased to adore.
He was by common agreement – one that was enthusiastically supported by Angelo Dundee, the mercurial cornerman of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard – the greatest trainer who ever lived. As a young lightweight hopeful in Detroit, to where he moved as a boy from Mississippi, he was so light on his feet he was employed as a sparring partner by Joe Louis. A naturally modest man, Futch always hoarded proudly the memory of his work with the great Louis.
"Joe," he said, "knew if he could hit me, he could hit anyone. I had this trick, up against the ropes, where I was always able to hit him. He never did figure it out." His career as a fighter was stillborn when he failed a medical examination when applying for a professional licence. It meant, though, that he could hone his genius for showing other men how to do it.
He had a stream of world champions, most notably Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks, Ken Norton, and in his last brilliant but often frustrating spell in the big-time, Riddick Bowe. Sadly, Futch walked away from Bowe when it became clear that the deeply talented but professionally irresolute world champion was not prepared to pay the price of staying at the top.
"For a while it worked well despite my first misgivings, but in the end I could see that it wasn't right," Futch recalled. "Riddick just wasn't prepared to take the discipline that goes with being a champion. I was disappointed because I liked him a lot and I thought he had great talent. When his people first came to me I said I wasn't interested because I didn't think the kid would work hard enough, but they persisted and I met the fighter in Reno. I set him a training programme and said he had to start in the early morning the following day. I also told him that I couldn't be around because I had to leave town that evening. That wasn't true. I drove up and parked on the side of the hill that was part of the running course I had set him. It was a cold early morning and I told myself that if Bowe didn't show up I wouldn't work with him. But then I saw him running up the hill, with frost on his breath, and I said I would give it a go."
The result was Bowe's rise to the undisputed world heavyweight title, an achievement accomplished in a superb fight with Evander Holyfield.
Futch was approaching legend when he made one of the most dramatic decisions in the history of boxing. He refused to let Joe Frazier leave his stool for the 15th round of the "Thrilla in Manila". Muhammad Ali was almost at the point of collapse but Futch realised that Frazier could hardly see. Many years later Futch said: "Joe had some nice kids and I wanted him to see them grow up. Just recently one of Joe's children came up to me and said: 'Eddie, we all hated you for a long time for making that decision, but now we love you for it.' That made me feel good."
When one of his champions, the former world welterweight title-holder Marlon Starling, rebelled, Futch told him: "Marlon, you should remember I've taught you everything you know – but not everything I know."
His last years were spent in great happiness with his young Swedish wife, Eva. He was a man of style and kindness and wonderful passion. He also remained phenomenally fit despite the need for hip replacements. He was in his 80s when confronted by a white racist in a supermarket parking lot in Las Vegas. The bigot was knocked cold.Reuse content